MIDDLE EAST: War fears grip the region
While Israel is trying to keep a low profile about its latest series of catastrophe drills, the Lebanese are accusing the Jewish state of beating the drums of war.
Top Hezbollah officials said that the military exercises next door, which continued for the second day today, were a sign that Israel was preparing for the next war after its "humiliating defeat" in the summer 2006 war.
The Shiite militant group's deputy leader, Sheik Naeem Qassem, told a rally in south Beirut on Sunday:
These drills are part of preparations for war because Israel is always in a warlike situation … These drills are part of plans for something in the future, probably it could be far off, but it is a preparation for war.
Hezbollah's main supporter, Iran, described the Israeli home front defense drills as "provocative actions." Mohammed Ali Hosseini, a spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, told reporters in Tehran today:
"The war game was performed to boost the low spirit of the Zionist regime's troops. But the nature and raison d'etre of the Zionist regime is terrorism and intimidation. Regrettably, whenever one U.S. official visits Israel, the Zionist regime's officials are emboldened to behave aggressively."
The Iranian official was referring to the recent visit of U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney to the Middle East.
On the ground in Lebanon, the situation remained relatively unperturbed as Israel conducted its drills. Papers reported calm on Lebanon's side along the southern border with Israel but said that the Lebanese army and the UN peacekeeping troops had increased their patrols in the area and were on high alert.
Israeli officials on Monday tested their response to the scenario of simultaneous attacks from Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. The Cabinet was scheduled to examine its capacity to organize the distribution of vital services, such as food, medical and postal services.
The tests continue on Tuesday, when Israeli schoolchildren will seek shelter in response to a nationwide air-raid siren. The largest simulated "incident" of the week will take place Wednesday in Haifa, when police and rescue workers will practice responding to a simulated chemical plant explosion.
The emergency preparedness week will also serve as the unveiling of a massive underground shelter and disaster response headquarters built underneath Haifa's central bus station at a cost of around $500,000.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has repeatedly denied that the week of drills is a cover for planned military actions against Hezbollah or Syria. On Monday, he said:
"The drill is no front for Israeli bellicose intentions toward Syria. The Syrians know they have no reason to interpret this drill in any other way."
Although Israeli officials have sent out messages of reassurance to Syria and Lebanon that the drills were not directed against any of its neighbors, analysts believe that Lebanon is not immune from another war, especially in the aftermath of the assassination of Hezbollah's top military commander, Imad Mughniyah.
Despite Israeli assurances, fears of an outbreak of war have shaken the Levant. A first-person article published by the English-language Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star explored the various scenarios of a war breaking out in the region:
The threat of war is never very far away in the Middle East, especially at the chaotic intersection where Lebanese, Israeli and Syrian interests and territories come together. All of these are even more complicated by internal factors than is generally acknowledged, and each is influenced by the regional and even global agendas of other powers, including America, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
— Raed Rafei in Beirut, Ashraf Khalil in Jerusalem and Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran
Photo: A soldier from the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) monitors the area on the Lebanese-Israeli border near the southern Lebanese town of Abbassiyeh on Sunday. Credit: Taher Abou Hamdan / AFP